A step towards system change

Back in 2009 – 2012 I undertook a three-year piece of work on hospital discharge. It was back in the days of Primary Care Trusts and an inspection by CSCI highlighted to us that the Local Authority and Health could work better together to improve outcomes for older people leaving hospital, having been admitted on an emergency basis. And so, our journey began. It was long and difficult, with more than one episode of differing opinions along the way. But, it was also invigorating and motivating and gave me loads of scope to test out systems thinking on something multi-organisational, cross-sector and very politically sensitive.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was developing an approach that would work for me repeatedly, in a multitude of situations. A flexible approach that allows me to adapt it (and my style) to different contexts. I have now badged it as my blended systems thinking approach. I constantly develop it and adjust my leadership style to different contexts and in relation to new research or other writings that I discover, and I am inspired by.

Nowadays, I am struck by how close we came to how people are now attempting system change. A little more boundary critique and a slight widening of perspectives even further and I think we would have come very close to something quite powerful in relation to improving experiences for older people. As it was, we made many improvements. It was work to be proud. For me, I got to do what I enjoy most – I worked with those on the ground and with end-users (patients, families, and carers) directly to make change. I used my position as a commissioner as an enabler to persuade others to think systemically. I gave others the voice they needed, the connections they required and the chance to do something differently. Make no mistake, implementation was difficult, very difficult, but worth it.

These are some of the features of the situation we were dealing with. The similarities to situations requiring system change are apparent:

Complex, inter-related problems
Our problems were complex and inter-related and therefore required the interaction and contribution from several actors, across numerous organisations. From the commissioners to the community providers to adult social care to the third sector to the ambulance service to carers and families and across areas to other hospitals. Not one service, organisation or group of people could improve the situation alone. There was a geographical dimension to our issues, a regional dimension, a local dimension, right down to a single person dimension.

Living systems
Our system could be likened to an open living system. That is certainly how I viewed it, at the time. There were elements that self-organised and it undertook ongoing, meaningful interaction with the immediate environment. There were networks of relationships and emergent properties. There were flows of energy and information that kept things alive, although they were rather sick at times, with energy sinks and poor information flows apparent in our diagnosis. One thing for sure, this system did not exist in a vacuum. It was affected by its environment and its environment by it. Where problems existed, it was often down to weak feedback systems preventing the system from self-regulating, self-correcting, and surviving at the level of effectiveness we wanted it to survive at. Instead, it was self-correcting to a lower level of effectiveness. Struggling, at times and yet surviving. Our systems were nested inside one another (patient, family, community, region, national) and all had the ability to influence and be influenced by each other. That’s how we knew that whatever changes we tried to make, they had to be simultaneous and at a variety of levels.

Viable systems
Was our system viable? Well, some would argue that it must be because it was surviving. But it was very sick. Different operations often caused chaos for one another, there were oscillations in performance, resources weren’t always sufficient, performance monitoring appeared to be measuring the wrong things or was fuelled by inappropriate incentives and as for future planning…..well, who had time to think about that properly? There was a strong identity though. Everyone knew what they were there for and had a passion for the people they served. The structures, functionality and information flows had difficulties though, lots of difficulties.

Our Approach
Without going into details of our case study at this time (it would make this blog far too long. I’ll save that for another time), the things we did were focussed on the following:

We diagnosed the situation, gained greater understanding, and identified opportunities together
What did our patients, their families and carers need? For what purpose? Did we understand it? We certainly tried to. Whilst this was not all about diagnosis, the situation we were in required that we did diagnose, and we needed to diagnose together. We needed to build up a joint understanding and only by going on a journey of discovery, together, would this happen. Everyone involved had an in depth understanding of what we were trying to work with and improve and bringing all of that understanding together and sharing it, using systems thinking approaches and other techniques we were able to build up a picture that none of us, separately, had. We applied the theoretical underpinnings of systems thinking and maintained our credibility by ensuring that it was coupled with the expertise from across the system. The combination of front line and bigger picture thinking helped us to move away from false assumptions, provoke the status quo and really explore.

We built platforms and processes for collaboration
Barriers came down, boundaries were widened and a multi-agency group, all of whom had equal accountability for making improvements, was formed. We built a strong, shared understanding of our joint challenges. We drew in as many stakeholders as we could, and we didn’t just pay it lip service. Many of our actions were driven by patient, family, and carer groups. In fact, our Joint Protocol for the Transfer of Care had a whole section in it, written by carers. Well, written by me but dictated by a carers group. They were a fully integral part of making improvements in our system and trust me when I say they held us to account!

We harnessed our collective power across hospital boundaries, bringing in the perspectives and collaboration from hospitals in three separate regions. I, as the commissioner, worked as the networker, the collaborator who enabled three separate discharge teams, from three separate hospitals, to work together on a Joint Protocol for the Transfer of Care. (and yes, I did get sign up to it from all three areas). As the understanding and collaboration grew, the relationships grew, the learning grew, the power dynamics reduced, and the sharing and accountability strengthened.

We aligned our vision and perspectives
Once people became assured that we were working for the greater good, and not just the perspective of one organisation, perspectives became more aligned. Whilst we could not always improve everyone’s issues all of the time, we all knew that what we were doing was in the best interests of the patients, their families and carers and we were all focussed on the same vision of improvement. Some things were as simple as sharing data in more real time, even if this was just verbally via a phone call. Some things focussed on avoiding (or at least reducing) the adverse impacts of an action taken by one player as we worked together to find ways to improve the situation for all.

We developed learning loops
Quality initiatives were implemented as a direct result of feedback from patients, carers groups, black and ethnic minority groups, disabled people’s groups, older people’s groups, and a whole lot more.
Closer links and more real time feedback between Boards and operational groups were developed. Reviews of case studies and identification of common themes for improvements were used for learning. Documents were reviewed and streamlined to make processes easier and quicker. We also linked to other systems (like the whole system escalation system) that gave us information about how our system was performing. It gave us a monitoring loop, without being overly intrusive.

We developed shared procedures
In addition to our Joint Protocol for the Transfer of Care, which was a huge undertaking, we developed new pathways to draw into the process those who had been previously excluded i.e. social housing. It’s amazing how quickly things can get done when people/ groups/ departments/ organisations etc are seen as inside the system and are included in any decision-making processes for patients.

We accepted our collective accountability and responsibilities
It wasn’t every man for himself in our situation. If one went down, we all went down. It was an unwritten understanding and it worked. We worked together, failed together, got back up together and flourished together. Everyone involved took on responsibility for the outcomes. It wasn’t top down; anything but. Leadership and responsibility came from all angles. It felt, to me, like we were not part of a huge hierarchy. We made connections and flowed information between those who needed it, not via hierarchical channels. It made people feel included, important and ‘part of something’. It was an important lesson in identity that I have never forgotten.

In conclusion
We changed the procedures across organisations, developed a culture of sharing and collaboration, streamlined communication and processes, and eliminated barriers to better serve our populations. We did it together and we learnt together.
I brought in my technical expertise of systems thinking (and my own health and social care background) and yet I was fully aware of and made full use of the power of the understanding from within the system. Years after, and now having worked as a consultant for a number of years, I can absolutely say that I believe that those inside the system are the best ones to make change. I do, however, also believe that bringing in the appropriate theory and someone who can give a ‘zoomed out’ view is also essential.

We did not let the enormity of things get on top of us. We changed what we could, as best we could at the time. Lots of smaller changes can actually add up to a very powerful change. In fact, if we had made huge radical change we would have potentially ended up with a lot of unintended consequences. It doesn’t always take a huge radical ‘hero’ to make change. Quite the contrary, no-one was a hero in our situation. What we did have though, were a lot of very informed, passionate, and dedicated people who were determined and committed to making a change. The most important thing, in my eyes, were the networks we built. They allowed sharing, learning and joint actions to be taken. We adapted together, not separately, and everything was an opportunity to learn. I was lucky, I worked for a Director who let this happen. He gave me the autonomy to act and only ever stepped in when asked or when I had ‘hit a brick wall that needed smashing down’. He did the smashing!

This wasn’t one organisation making change, it was dealing with change from multiple areas on an ongoing basis. It took ongoing effort, massive effort, and it was worth it.

One thing I believe wholeheartedly, it was the systems thinking that gave us the confidence to keep going and I will be ever grateful for the opportunities I had to apply the systems thinking and to learn from it. They were lessons I will never forget.

Oh, and whilst we were focussed on quality and not delayed discharge figures, we did keep our delay figures to below national and regional average for around three years.

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What can a professional ice hockey player teach us about system change? Quite a lot, I believe!

I had the pleasure of listening to Curtis Brackenbury talk about his work on ‘Optimising Human Performance’ this week. No, he isn’t an academic or a systems practitioner, he is a professional ice hockey player and coach and yet he applies elements of NLP and viable system modelling to his training and coaching and what a result he gets! (http://www.legendsofhockey.net/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/SearchPlayer.jsp?player=12084)

Rather than describing his methods in detail, I’m going to cut straight to what I, personally, saw in his work that resonated with me about applying the viable systems model, on the ground, for transformation or system change. This is what I call ‘the glue’, the stuff that makes it work and, sadly, the stuff that people often miss out and then wonder why they are not getting results.

Elements of the VSM that I saw in his work, with my own comments added underneath:

• The importance of effective and quick data sharing across the whole group and good general sharing mechanisms, to allow continual adjustment

  • this is a very important aspect of viable systems. Real time data sharing is one of the key information flows that enables a system to be viable. The quicker and more real time the data, the more chance you have of enabling continual adjustment and adaptability which are absolutely key, particularly for system change.

• Having a dynamic approach

  • Again, absolutely key to enabling an effective viable system. A dynamic approach supports ongoing adaptability and encourages change

• Have a number of contingencies in place and accept that things can’t be heavily planned

  • This is a key mindset for ongoing adaptability and regeneration. Heavy planning is not as important as being able to adapt

• Continual feedback and learning across the system

  • Between every element of the viable system model is a feedback loop. Understanding these feedback loops can be a key element of success. Also, If the system is not undertaking double or triple loop learning, then it is unlikely to be viable in the longer term.

• Have strong control mechanisms in place (i.e. coaches)

  • Having things in place that can bring the system back within its control limits is key for a viable system

• No so much focus on the ‘cogs’ but lots of focus on the regulation (particularly self-regulation)

  • Focussing on the interactions, rather than focussing on the ‘things’, is key to understanding how your system is working, particularly when enacting system change

• Measure in detail and understand the behavioural side of things

  • Part of the monitoring loop and links to self-organisation

• Looking at the athlete holistically within the systems in which they sit

  • As you would look at the system, the system in which it sits and the systems within in. i.e. the 3 levels of recursion you would work with, with a viable system model

• Train for deception – train to create it and train to read it

  • I think this is one of the most important things he said. If you train for deception you are telling you brain not to have a fixed way of doing things. Be prepared for anything, to go in any direction. Just like the speedy self-organisation sometimes required to respond to your environment in real time. This was an EXCELLENT piece of advice, encouraging exactly the right mindset to enable system change

• Look for people’s responses. Look for patterns

  • A true system thinker!

Aspects that I picked up in his talk that I think are essential to your leadership style when using systems thinking in practice (with my comments underneath):

• The importance of identity, culture and being part of something important

  • Absolutely yes. Identity is extremely important for a viable system. If you don’t know your identity and you can’t self-regulate then it is unlikely you will be able to engage in the self-organisation required to maintain viability. If you don’t feel like you are part of something important, you are in the wrong place!

• You have got to let go of the ego

  • This is absolutely spot on! Using systems thinking, if you don’t let go of your ego you will never break through the barriers to allow yourself to see what is happening in the situation. You will always have an ‘ego filter’ that tells you why something isn’t so. You have to be humble to use systems thinking or you will never challenge yourself and never become as adaptable as you need to be

• Identify the value added for the individual to highlight why they would do something

  • Absolutely! This is like ‘show, don’t tell’. You have to highlight what the value would be to the individual of using systems thinking or viable system modelling, not sell the thinking or the model per se, or you are wasting your time. Show the value, not the ‘thing’

• Respectful relationships are key

  • Obvious, really

• You need the courage to be vulnerable

  • This is absolutely key when using systems thinking and viable system modelling for transformation or system change. If you aren’t prepared to be vulnerable enough to go on a journey of discovery, then any attempts at applying different thinking will be a complete waste of time

• Do not get locked into one paradigm

  • Absolutely! And yet so very difficult. Many people do not understand that they are locked in a certain paradigm and awareness of this can be a key enabler in system change. It can alter mindsets and open up a whole new set of perspectives.

• You need observation of behaviours and a focus on continual self-regulation

  • Again, absolutely, yes! This links to the competencies that are required for managing complexity and managing in complexity. Gareth Morgan’s work on competencies required in complexity fits nicely here. If you don’t know his work, his book, ‘Riding the Waves of Change’ gives an excellent account of these competencies

• Embrace failure and embrace fatigue

  • Because of you don’t accept failure and fatigue you won’t have the grit required to deal with what viable system modelling exposes. You will definitely not be able to ‘put things right’, you will only be able to make things improve somewhat from where they are now. So, you need to be able to accept a degree of failure and this will, at times, leave you fatigued

• You must be aware yourself of what you are asking others to do – you need to know how they will experience something

  • Another thing that I think is KEY. I get a little tired of hero ‘leaders’ and consultants telling everyone to be hugely radical, when they have never done that or experienced that themselves. Sometimes, system change does not happen like that. In complexity, huge radical changes are sometimes not required. A number of smaller changes, at the same time, can often work better and be more sustainable, in my experience. My advice would be not to encourage everyone, in every situation, to be radical if you don’t know what you are asking them to do. At best it might cause lots of upset and at worst, it could lose them their jobs.

Some very key insights there, in my perspective. Thank you, Curtis, for a very interesting talk. I wish we could find more of this to share with the wider systems thinking community and with students. I think we have far too much regurgitation of the diagram of a model and far too little about practical application and especially the aspects relating to people and competencies and behaviours that are required to make it all work in practice.

Systems Thinking Training

Are you keen to learn systems thinking in a relaxed and friendly environment? Want something that fits your context? Want to learn about practical on the ground use of systems thinking using case study examples? Sick of the really high prices charged by large consultancies? Get in touch. I might be able to help you.

I am a Visiting Lecturer in Applied Systems Thinking at CASS Business School, City University, London and an Associate Lecturer in systems thinking (thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change) at the Open University. I also work as an independent systems thinking trainer and consultant.

Partnering with a number of colleagues (which allows us to bring experience from a wider scope of sectors) we can deliver our standard systems thinking training or develop something bespoke for you. Our prices may well be much cheaper than larger consultancies.

Get in touch pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Why the viable system model is perfect for exploring and understanding the complex world of public services

 

It was over a year ago that The Guardian informed us of ‘a warning from the Local Government Association (LGA) that councils will soon need to make deep cuts to essential services. This will include anything from road repairs, parks, children’s centres, waste collection, leisure centres and libraries.’ Yes, one year ago. At that time, a third of local authorities expected their parks to decline within three years, things like meals on wheels and debt advice centres had already disappeared and managers were being forced into ‘one or the other’ dilemmas. (https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2017/feb/28/uk-government-cuts-parks-libraries-local-government-nhs-prisons)

The NHS, the world’s fifth largest employer was, and still is, being disrupted by endless reorganisations.(https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/18/10-truths-about-britains-health-service).

In 2016, health expenditure in the UK was 9.75 per cent of GDP. This compared to 17.21 per cent in the USA, 11.27 per cent in Germany, 10.98 per cent in France, 10.50 per cent in the Netherlands, 10.37 per cent in Denmark and 10.34 per cent in Canada. (http://www.nhsconfed.org/resources/key-statistics-on-the-nhs)

In 2016, the NHS was dealing with over 1 million patients every 36 hours (http://www.nhsconfed.org/resources/key-statistics-on-the-nhs)

Sobering, isn’t it? We were warned back then that public services required better management. But what? Where to start? And how?

What if there was a way to look at public services how we might look at large, interactive socio-ecological systems? What if there was a way to look at public services that would help us to consider their ongoing co-evolution within a complex environment?

Well, after using the viable system model and blending it with other systems thinking approaches for over 10 years in public services, I believe there is such a way and I think the idea is beautifully explained in the teachings from the book, ‘A Complexity Approach to Sustainability, theory and application’ by Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker.

Whilst it does not always explicitly mention public services in the book it isn’t hard to apply the thinking to the public services context.

The book talks about ‘open systems’ –  systems that are open to exchanges of energy and information with the environment with which they co-evolve. It tells us that, ‘all living systems are networks of smaller components, and the web of life as a whole is a multi-layered structure of living systems nestling within other living systems’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2001, p6) which sounds somewhat like our public services to me. These ‘living systems’ may remain stable for certain periods of time but they do occasionally go through points of critical instability, where new forms of order might spontaneously emerge. This means that the ‘state’ of the system is not predictable and what is created may be dependent upon the systems structure and the path of development when new order emerges – Capra, 2008 (Espinosa and Walker, 2011, p8). Again, this is sounding very familiar with my experiences of public services. These systems are otherwise known as a Complex Adaptive System. Espinosa and Walker explain that complex adaptive systems are open systems whose elements interact dynamically and nonlinearly. They exhibit unpredictable behaviours, are affected by positive and negative feedback loops and co-evolve with their environment. They demonstrate ‘path dependence’ i.e. they have a history, an emergent structure, they self-organise when they are far from equilibrium, or at the edge of chaos. As a result of self-organisation, these systems exhibit emergent properties. They have learning networks, which are able to co-operate to manage their resources and develop adaptive behaviours. This co-operation emerges in the course of reciprocation strategies, rather than evolving from some sort of central control. Now, again, that sounds to me a little like the direction of travel being encouraged in public service transformation. At the moment the central control still predominates but I can foresee a time where this might be less so.

But wait, those versed in management cybernetics (where the viable system model sits) might now be saying that whilst ‘cybernetics is about how systems regulate themselves, evolve and learn and its high spot is the question of how they organise themselves’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011, p11) aren’t they closed systems? A ‘closed system’ being one which has coherent, closed networks of relationships?’ So how can the VSM be useful in a situation that has the hallmarks of, and appears to be behaving somewhat like or moving towards, an open system?

This is where the writings of Espinosa and Walker explain the beautifully complimentary view of the complex adaptive system and viable system frameworks working in harmony together. Viable systems are open to energy and information and co-evolve with their environment. However, they are organisationally closed. Their organisational patterns and evolution are self-referential, self-organising and self-regulated. However, when we observe from a cybernetic perspective, we can consider the viable system model but then we can extend our understanding by considering its dynamic interaction with the environment in which it sits and therefore the viable system’s characteristics as a complex adaptive system. ‘The CAS and the VSM are complimentary frameworks that explain issues of complexity management (VSM) and complex evolving behaviours (CAS)’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011. P15).

So, for me, over time, the viable system model has been hugely eye-opening and one of the most powerful ways to expose understanding of how a complex situation is working. A viable system can be described as, ‘a system which is able to adapt and maintain an independent existence as it co-evolves with a changing environment.’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011 p13) It is always embedded in, and composed of, other viable systems.

Espinosa and Walker explain that Stafford Beer, the developer of the viable system model understood that, ‘the focus of VSM anlaysis is to observe the ability of the organisational system to handle the complexity of tasks required to fulfil its purpose in the context of a highly complex changing environment.’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011 p13)

Stafford Beer argues that for a system to be sustainable, proper structures need to be in place. These are neither centralised nor decentralised but have the right balance between the two and are capable of dealing with the complexity in their environment. He sees planning and policy based on government being the facilitator of radical change which emerges at a local level (Espinosa, Walker, 2011). Viable systems have adaptability and flexibility, awareness and self-reliance and have the capacity to innovate and induce change in other systems in pursuit of their own purpose.

Think about that for a moment………. If integrated teams, and other such teams, got this right, their reciprocation may form a structural coupling that allows all organisations involved to induce change in a complimentary way so that the purposes of the wider whole can be fulfilled. Espinosa and Walker tell us that sustainability is not about constancy but is about the ability of the living system to co-evolve with its environment. Could the right balance between centralised and decentralised structures and emergent local level change move us towards a more sustainable way of providing public services?

I think this is what we may already be seeing in some areas. But can these teams engage in the right kind of decision making that does not put anyone in a catastrophic domain? I’m not sure that we are there yet, with this one. That kind of decision making is different to what currently exists and may take a little more building of trustful relationships, different competencies and different ways of evaluating success across the whole of the network before it comes to fruition. Our idea of governance may well need to be different before governmental and non-governmental agencies can make effective decisions together. As Espinosa and Walker inform us, there currently may not even be a suitably acknowledged theory of governance to take account of the concept of sustainability. So, when public sector managers are troubled about how to enable this new world to ‘work’ isn’t it acceptable that, at the moment, they might not be 100% sure, as everyone tries to learn their way forward together?

The VSM, taking its inspiration from the natural world, helps us to identify structural factors which may constrain viability. It guides us through investigating how the system manages its interactions, identifying learning problems caused by communication issues that affect the system’s ability to deal with complexity, how our mental models affect what we observe and how to do a rapid, but very accurate, diagnosis of complex systems. It helps us to understand that empowerment enables the quick responses required for co-evolution and that our organisations are currently likely to be built for a much less complex world and their current structures are not adaptable or flexible enough for any kind of rapid response.

The VSM helps us to consider conflicts of interest and how to maintain stability, working towards collaboration rather than competition. It encourages us to understand that performance can be better together than if we were working in isolation. It supports us in understanding how joint management decisions, across a number of organisations, could activate a support network if one organisation becomes a risk to the cohesion of the whole. Of course, here is where we need a different kind of performance measurement and decision making, as we all know what it’s like when organisations have opposing performance indicators that encourage perverse behaviours of ‘self-preservation’ of the individual organisation.

The VSM helps us to bridge strategic criteria across different levels and consider effective bargains around financial, technological, physical and skill-based resources. This may, however, give some challenge to what are current ‘corporate norms.’ New ‘norms’ will need to develop over time. Questions we may well need to consider are:  What is the new context of the whole? What is the identity of the whole? What raft of creative and feasible strategies and policies are required to realise this new identity?

Espinosa and Walker are clear that sustainability will take cognitive, structural and political change. Policies will require a different focus around ‘deliberately building trust, understanding leadership in a collaborative context, building co-ordination mechanisms so that true collaboration can flourish and identifying critical measures for sustainability.’ We will need to observe and measure in as real-time as possible. Risk will need to be considered differently. We will need different information flows and we will need to make and assess decisions differently. Autonomy and empowerment will be critical to progress and we will need to be able to openly learn from mistakes, without fear of reprisal. We will require a new perspective of control that aims for a culture of respect, trust, transparency and reciprocity.

Seeing and enacting public services as a dynamic, adaptive, self-organising whole will no doubt be an enormous challenge. There is, however, as we have learned, a model of thinking that can help us to understand the emerging patterns of complex interactions. A systems thinking and complexity approach is exceptionally powerful and ‘the VSM is unprecedented in its power to diagnose and solve complex organisational problems’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011).

Personally, I strongly believe that whilst you can use consultants to undertake a VSM diagnostic for you, the systems thinking and complexity way of understanding is far more powerful when it becomes part of your culture. In my opinion, the better use of specific systems thinking consultants is to use us to guide you through how to apply a systems thinking and complexity mindset. Use us as facilitators of a process of learning in your context. In my experience, this takes more than a one-off interaction. You may need our help and support over a period of time. But, we can help you to get started and we can guide you towards a way of considering your situation that will give powerful insights and help you and your partnerships to learn your way forward together.

Espinosa, A, Walker, J 2011 A Complexity Approach to Sustainability, theory and application. Imperial College Press

 

The Blended Systems Thinking Approach – enhancing understanding to enable regenerative transformation

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Imagine if there was an approach to change and transformation that could take away the fear that managers have when they don’t know what improvements to make, where to start or how to get to where they need to be.

Imagine if there was an approach that allowed you to quickly and powerfully understand how your system works.

Imagine if there was a way to be more adaptable so your organisation thrives and survives  longer term.

There is such an approach. It exists in the form of the Blended Systems Thinking Approach  that I have developed over the last 10+ years of applying systems thinking to complex situations.

Traditional methods of working rarely seek to understand and work with complexity. Many organisations were designed in a time when being adaptable and flexible were not as important as they are today. Many organisations continue to use approaches that might have been useful to them in the past, but are of little use in complex situations. Approaches like Plan Do Check Act does not deal with complexity. Lean does not deal with complexity. Six sigma does not deal with complexity. So, we need a different approach to deal with the challenges of today.

My approach is a systems and complexity thinking approach that can be used for transformation and/ or change. It can be used to diagnose a situation to give a whole range of options for improvement, to design something from scratch or to transform a situation by understanding and shifting a range of perspectives, aligning values and perceived purposes and by helping organisations to build a co-created identity with their partners.

With this approach I do not seek to focus on ineffective long-term prediction and rigid planning. We all know that this is relatively pointless in complex situations. Instead, I help people to understand the complexity in which their situation sits and understand why things may not be working as  expected. My aim is to enable the adaptability and flexibility required for organisations to thrive and survive, on a long-term basis, in a complex, and sometimes rapidly changing, environment.

The approach

The main model used in my approach is the VIABLE SYSTEM MODEL, with other methods/ models/ concepts etc being added to the VSM approach, in appropriate places, to enhance the understanding of the complex situation. The process followed for each of the following three types of activity is different. However, they all draw upon the elements outlined in the approach, albeit in different ways or in different sequences. This approach can be used to:

  1. Diagnose – based on identifying the areas where you are not managing the complexity in your system, identifying how your system self-organises and regenerates and how adaptable you are.
  2. Design from scratch – focussing on the perceived or initial intended purpose of the system, based on the multiple perspectives of the stakeholders. Taking into account POSIWID (the purpose of the system is what it does) and aiming for sufficient adaptability to manage your complex situation. Designing for positive emergence, where possible.
  3. Transform – based on understanding and shifting perspectives, aligning values and perceived purposes and building a co-created identity. Building capacity by focussing on interconnections, interdependencies and interactions, enabling effective communication flows and aiming for sustainable management of complexity.

I have no rigidly fixed way of going from A to B with my approach, just a range of options that I might use, depending upon the situation I face. I encourage critical observation throughout and whilst I will draw upon various elements of my approach in a sequence that fits with a specific diagnosis, there are some things I always do first. For example, a boundary critique. The complexity of the environment is infinite, so the system must decide what it wants to focus on. A boundary critique defines the limits of what is to be taken as pertinent in the investigation, so it is beneficial to surface those judgements at the very beginning, if possible. This is why I always start with the boundary critique.  I use Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) to assist me, which gives some really easy to follow questions to get me started. What I try to do is identify what selectivity is occurring and I question the practical and ethical elements of those judgements with stakeholders. CSH is great for this and worth getting to grips with. I interview people, talk to groups of stakeholders, have workshops and might use other techniques, such as questionnaires, to bring in as many perspectives as I can, without it getting too overwhelming. I try not to go ‘too big’, or it tends to become unmanageable. I then identify what kind of tensions, values, conflicts and expectations exist and work with the stakeholders to decide what is going to be inside and outside of the boundary.

The viable system model (VSM) addresses  how an organisation manages complexity. It looks to establish the necessary and sufficient structural preconditions for viability. It gives powerful insights around self-organisation and adaptive management. In public services, for example, it can help us move more towards a model of self-organised networks.

When we use the VSM it is important that we are also able to empower people. It is essential that any networks we create are able to build trust and understand how collaborative leadership works. Bottom up learning processes can help with this empowerment and this is an essence of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), so I bring in some of the CAS thinking here, to ensure that those learning processes are considered and embedded.

All of this self-organisation, networks, bottom up learning etc pushes us towards models of working that require people to have new and different competencies to what might have worked in the past. Nowadays, we require a focus on autonomy, accountability, respect, trust, transparency and reciprocity. This is where I bring in the work of Gareth Morgan who clearly outlines the competencies required in a more complex working environment.

Of course, there are also multiple perspectives in our situations, particularly when working towards things like leadership of place in public services. To help me work effectively with these, I draw in some Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) which uses techniques like rich pictures to capture and communicate these perspectives in an unthreatening way and conceptual models to help me visually work with and communicate current or future concepts.

I also need to get a grip of the dynamics in a situation and the feedback loops between elements of the VSM. For this, I use some basic Systems Dynamics and in particular causal loop mapping. These diagrams can display a huge amount of complex information on one page that takes minutes to understand and yet would take numerous pages of complicated text to explain. The systems dynamics helps me to understand the structure that determines the behaviour over time of the situation I am looking at, so it is a valuable addition to my approach.

If I think it necessary, I will pull in a number of other approaches. One of which might be to explore the structural couplings in a situation. Structural couplings are things like the other organisations you might interact with in a mutually beneficial way, whilst still preserving your identity and viability; the recurrent interactions leading to structural congruence. So, it is not hard to imagine how investigating and understanding the structural couplings can enhance the value of the core viable system modelling approach.

I look for improvements that are both systemically desirable and culturally feasible. When it comes to making improvements, I use small scale prototyping to enable a more entrepreneurial approach and I aim for the ability to regenerate and survive on an ongoing basis.

It is important to add that I strongly advocate a facilitative and coaching style in my work. I do not work individually but I bring people, from all levels of an organisation, along for the ride with me. I try to teach as much about the thinking process as possible along the way as it is important to me that people can learn the skills for themselves. This type of change and transformation requires ongoing understanding and learning and I put as much effort into that (sometimes more) as I do in undertaking the actual diagnosis. I act as a facilitator of others’ learning. I do not use a traditional ‘problem’ ‘solution’ style of consulting. I work on the ground, and with all levels in the organisation, to facilitate learning in their context. My aim is to develop a working context that allows people to deal with complex situations so that the organisation becomes adaptable and can thrive and survive independently in the longer term.

There are a number of strengths to my approach:

  • It develops understanding in your context – it is a uniquely different way of thinking about and diagnosing your current situation;
  • It is widely applicable – from large organisations to small services;
  • It has rigour – it uses tried and tested methods, models and concepts;
  • It develops a wider range of co-created options for improvement;
  • It reduces how intimidating large complex situations are and enables you to work with them to diagnose why certain things keep happening or are getting worse

And it can bring a number of benefits, such as:

  • Giving your organisation the ability to adjust, modify and change, to take advantage of opportunities and cope with the consequences of shock or stress;
  • Helping you increase your capacity and capability by helping you to understand the underlying structures that drive behaviours and outcomes;
  • It develops a strong foundation for decision making to give benefits across the system;
  • It helps you to manage complexity to improve problematic situations and capitalise on opportunities

And some additional benefits:

  • It can help to identify and strengthen the voice of any marginalised groups, who currently do not have the voice or positive influence they might have;
  • It can explicitly identify the power dynamics, so that you can develop strategies for dealing with them;
  • It encourages stakeholders to drive the systemic change;
  • It can help to identify potential conflict situations;
  • Organisations/ teams who learn by evolution/ regeneration tend to create an environment of ongoing innovation;
  • It encourages a greater entrepreneurial mindset by helping you to identify opportunities to innovate;
  • It helps you to understand what is required to give energy to and scale up new ideas;
  • It encourages you to experiment and identifies that failure is temporary and, in some cases, a necessary pre-cursor to success;
  • It can give you a different response to conflict.

The Blended Systems Thinking Approach – enhancing understanding to enable regenerative change and transformation.

Systems thinking – ‘live it – share it’ – using our collective systems thinking skills to broaden horizons, expand our communities and welcome contributions from all practitioners, not just the dominant few

In 2017 there was yet another influx of practitioners, newly qualified in systems thinking in practice from the Open University (and indeed other Universities), into our environment. A diverse and competent bunch with a wide range of perspectives and skills. They join the many who are out there already and, from my observations, a huge amount of practitioners are actively sharing and encouraging the use of systems thinking in the workplace and beyond. Some are forming their own mini communities of practice, whilst others chose to ‘go it alone’.

In my experience, the longer standing members of the systems thinking communities are vital for helping to develop and support these newer practitioners. However, there are often differences in context and opinion between the very experienced practitioners and the new adopters and also between those who have experience of practical application of systems thinking and those who are more academically orientated. Bringing those contexts and opinions together to produce a community which is useful to as many as possible can be at best real fun but at worst challenging and somewhat volatile.

As systems practitioners, we might expect intellectual challenge; we do not expect personal attacks and bad behaviours. We might expect some practitioners to be more vocal than others; we do not expect dominance by a few at the expense of others. So, what about attempting to move some of our focus towards sharing and appreciating the social capital of the wider community? How about strengthening the psychological bonds between us? How about focussing on the interdependencies we have and building upon those connections? Our social capital as a group could potentially be a key element of our ongoing survival and development as systems practitioners. This doesn’t mean that we all have to get along or agree with one another. It does mean that we should have respect for one another’s opinions. It does not mean that only the long-standing ‘experts’ should have the only voice. It does mean that all practitioners could be encouraged to seek diverse learning and develop whenever they can.

Why don’t we start trading the problems of our differences for possibilities? Consider what new conversations we want to occur? Help all practitioners to understand their own power to act and improve? Declare our possibilities? Define what future we want to “live in to”? Have inward bonding but also build bridges outwards to other complimentary communities?

But, how? And where do we start? It’s within all of us to make it happen. We can focus on the gifts and capacities we have to give to one another. We can capture and share our quality interactions. We can create possibilities for practitioners to engage more with one another. We can instigate different kinds of conversations so that we create something new together. We can make new, joint declarations of possibility by identifying what we find useful/ important for our development. We can replace stories about the past for possibilities for the future (whilst still appreciating the learning from the past, of course). We can create new ways to listen, speak and communicate meaning to one another. We can create new context, instead of trying to ‘solve our problems’. We can create opportunities to deepen accountability and commitment to development through supportive engagement. And, we can adopt and ‘all voices have value’ ethos.

We can identify what needs retaining for the future, share our stories, identify what we could create together and encourage restorative conversations about possibilities.

In my opinion, we are perfectly able to make our boundaries more porous and encourage a wider range of practitioners into the fold and build bridges with other communities.

Our future, as a systems practitioner community, may have a better chance of being regenerative if we create a wider, more diverse, culture. If we use our questions as a pathway to new wisdom, rather than as sticks to beat each other with.

But, how do we manage the high degree of competition to enable us to be more collaborative, learning and sharing? I, for one, have personally experienced the collaborative learning as a new practitioner. But, as I’ve become more experienced I’ve encountered more of a ‘push back’ from those who once used to teach and share. How do we regenerate as a whole? How do we nurture ongoing social cohesion? And how do we develop a culture of collaboration if some only allow this to happen if others ‘know their place’? How do we evolve towards increasing diversity if we don’t allow the diversity to flourish?

I wold love to see our systems thinking communities (and other complimentary communities) start to focus on the benefits of the collective whole of those communities. Maybe we should take a leaf out of our own text books and start to really understand the underlying dynamics of the different systems thinking communities and how those dynamics can be manipulated for greater benefits?

After all, ‘the world will be different only if we live differently’ Manturana & Varela, 1987. In my book that means co-creating a new and different narrative for the development and wider application of systems thinking, that isn’t constrained by egos and individual wants and needs.

I’m feeling hopeful that 2018 might push us along on our journey, in the right direction.

 

‘Eyes on- hands off’ – are you ready to make the change?

What can public services learn from General Stanley McChrystal’s approach – Team of Teams?

I was pointed towards this podcast by my colleagues Mike Haber and Tim James www.bosslevelpodcast.com/general-stan-mcchrystal-and-a-team-of-teams/

I was totally inspired by General Stanley McChrystal so I went on to read his book, Team of Teams.

I loved the book, not least because of his amazing work but because his application of systems thinking is not relayed via technical accounts of what a system is or what a viable system etc. is, but because he tells a story; the story of how he applied an approach that was effective, that worked and he did it in the real world.

So, what is it all about?

The forward of his book starts by telling us, ‘Whether in business or in war, the ability to react quickly and adapt is critical, and it’s becoming even more so as technology and disruptive forces increase the pace of change. That requires new ways to communicate and work together. In today’s works, creativity is a collaborative endeavour. Innovation is a team effort.’

20th century organisation is of little use in the 21st century and yet many organisations cling on to it like an old friend, preferring to focus on things like reducing variation, separating out planning and execution via organisational charts and having managers who focus on keeping things in working order and maintaining morale. But, as General McChrystal points out in his book, ‘You cannot force the complex to conform to rules meant for the merely complicated’. Our new environments demand new approaches.

These new approaches are ones of agility, coherence of purpose and strategy and evolution through adaption. They are dispersed, organic, associative networks with a culture that rewards individual initiative and critical thinking (rather than simple execution of demands) and they are nurturing of competence and adaptability.  They are approaches of decentralised teams who are well co-ordinated, have tight accountability and widespread information exchanges. Change is less about tactics or new technology but is more about internal architecture, culture and people as interchangeable parts. They are approaches where people have a willingness to ‘know what we don’t know’ and ‘expect the unexpected’. To enable the required agility, the approaches need to make a shift from strategic planning and predicting to reconfiguring. After all, ‘setting oneself on a predetermined course in unforeseen waters is the perfect way to sail straight into an iceberg’ (Henry Mintzberg). Adaptability, contextual understanding, flexibility and collective responsibility for success, and what that responsibility entails, should be new predominant features.

He also clearly states that, ‘an organisation’s fitness – like that of an organism – cannot be assessed in a vacuum; it is a product of compatibility with the surrounding environment.’ Contextual awareness is imperative.

What did he do?

‘Team of Teams’ focusses on the transformation of an elite military organisation, the Joint Special Operations Task Force, in the midst of a war.

For General McChrystal, different thinking and a different approach weren’t really optional. He was not just dealing with, ‘looking at the same roads with faster traffic; we were looking at an entirely different and constantly shifting landscape.’ It soon became clear to him that the old world, where efficiency was enough, no longer existed and ‘adaptability, not efficiency, must become our central competency’.

General McChrystal set out to look for familiar structures and patterns hidden in the chaos around him and started focussing on connections between things, rather than the things themselves. He set out re-structure his teams to develop a more networked, non-hierarchical operation.

His re-structuring was focussed on the principles of extremely transparent information sharing to develop a ‘shared consciousness’ and coupled with this was a decentralised decision-making authority, which he called, ‘empowered execution’.

What I see in what General McChrystal did is very transferrable to the world of public services and especially to those moving towards more team based working across multiple organisations.

Let’s take a look at some of the key points/ thinking behind his transformation.

Some key points/ thinking about the approach

  • Focus on connections between things, rather than the things themselves. ‘Resilience is the result of linking elements that allow parts of the systems to reconfigure or adapt in response to change or damage’;
  • Predicting and planning should no longer be the main focus because we exist in an ecosystem, much of which we have no control over;
  • Efficiency is important but ability to continually adapt to complexity is imperative. The old world, where efficiency was enough, no longer exists;
  • Move away from the fragility of being damaged by shocks and aim to be an organisation that can benefit from shocks, because it can adapt quickly;
  • Focus on an organic and associative network that is decentralised, well-co-ordinated, with tight accounting, widespread information exchange and agility and resilience;
  • You should only empower if the recipients of new found authority have the necessary sense of perspective to act on it wisely. Empowerment without sharing doesn’t work, neither does sharing without empowerment. You must have shared consciousness and empowered execution together;
  • Focus on purpose and adaptability, rather than procedure and efficiency;
  • Create adaptability whilst maintaining traditional strengths. Hierarchy needs to exist but needs to understand that it is part of a network;
  • Shift the focus from categorisation to integration – become a network;
  • Contextual awareness is key.

Some key points/ thinking about the leadership style

  • Replace command structures with teams but maintain a hierarchy to set boundaries. However, the hierarchy should behave differently. Teams need autonomy to make decisions and the hierarchy needs to let them do it. The leader needs to let the team problem solve and they need to be one of the team. ‘Team players should not have to consult with the coach before taking a shot.’
  • The leader should ensure their subordinates know the leader’s decision-making processes, so they can make decisions themselves on the leader’s behalf. Agility and adaptability is achieved by loosening control. The leader has ultimate responsibility still;
  • Adopt an ‘eyes on – hands off’ leadership style. Push decision making and ownership to the right level for every action;
  • Lean towards enabling, rather than directing and aim to build trust and common purpose. Pump information out and empower people at all levels;
  • Maintain consistent example and message. The most powerful instrument of communication is your own behaviour;
  • Dissolve the barriers of silos and floors of hierarchies. ‘As our own environment erupts with too many possibilities to plan for effectively, we must become comfortable sharing power.’

Some key points/ thinking about the teams

  • ‘Design your teams and their development to foster emergent intelligence that can thrive in the absence of a plan’;
  • What makes teams adaptable is key to transformation. ‘Adaptability is built through trust and a shared sense of purpose’;
  • People act as interchangeable parts. They change to suit the environment. General McChrystal found that the lack of traditional hierarchy meant that there was no internal anarchy by removal of significant individuals. The hierarchy is maintained but in a different way. There should be a combination of management and team work;
  • Let the ones who want to quit, quit;
  • Collective team consciousness is required. Trust and purpose are KEY. Teams need to believe in the cause;
  • The team must act as a co-ordinated whole. Teams whose members know each other deeply perform better;
  • The team should be collectively responsible for the team’s success and understand everything that that responsibility entails;
  • They need to build these things as instinctive behaviours that are triggered by communication;
  • Trust and communication are more important than technical skills;
  • Teams need to produce clear, sufficient information about their operations so the hierarchy can watch from a distance;
  • Have flexible, multi directional communicative bonds. Have a strong lattice of trusting relationships. Horizontal connectivity is important. There MUST be meaningful relationships between teams;
  • ‘Interconnectedness and the ability to transmit information instantly can give small groups unprecedented influence’;
  • ‘Individuals and teams closest to the problem, armed with unprecedented levels of insights from across the network, offer the best ability to decide and act decisively.’

Some key points/ thinking about culture

Most systems thinkers will stress that culture is an emergent property of the system. This system is designed to enable the following culture:

  • A culture that rewards individual initiative and critical thinking, rather than simple execution of demands;
  • Nurturing of competence and adaptability;
  • Empowerment/ self-organisation and freedom to act;
  • If you receive a complaint, you own it;
  • ‘Use good judgement in all situations’

So, what about scaling up?

  • Scale up the teams by building a team of teams;
  • Relationship between constituent teams should resemble those of the relationships between individuals in teams;
  • Teams are bound by common purpose, rather than outperforming another team. They are a friendly force, not a competitive rival and they understand the impact of their work on other teams;
  • You don’t have to know everyone in the other team but you do need to know someone. Job swapping can be beneficial;
  • All teams co-operate to achieve strategic and tactical success by sharing and connecting the dots;
  • Have daily communications between teams with counterparts. Conduct daily analysis and have quick data exchanges. Make sure you have everyone in attendance who is required to make a decision;
  • Fuse generalist awareness with specialist expertise. Settings must allow teams to work together;
  • Key leaders move between teams often to share information;
  • Have quick feedback loops to update information to inform next actions – this allows quick, iterative adaption;
  • Have fluid integration between operations and analysts – build trust, co-operation and working together for the greater good.

How can this help public sector leaders?

Public sector leaders who now have to merge teams across organisational boundaries, deal with ever changing complex environments, modernise working practices and develop effective strategies may want to pick up on General McChrystal’s change of focus – from heavy planning to adaptability, from silos to shared consciousness, from command and control to empowered execution and from a narrow internal focus to internal focus coupled with contextual awareness.

Nowadays, being aware of the bigger picture is imperative. Quick re-calibration of short-term plans can allow problems to be addressed quickly and enable improved operations. Leaders may want to shift from moving players on the chess board to shaping ecosystems. They may want to create and maintain the teamwork conditions required to balance information and empowerment and develop cross functional co-operation. They may want to explicitly articulate priorities and delegate decisions with no incongruence.

What General McChrystal states in his book and what is very clear to me is that what is required is,

‘a complete reversal of the conventional approach to information sharing, delineating of roles, decision-making authority and leadership’ which is precisely what he did with his Task Force.

Team of Teams – General Stanley McChrystal

 

Are you riding the waves of change or drowning in the turbulent seas? What can we learn from Gareth Morgan?

‘Imagine a long, open Hawaiian beach. The surf is rolling in, and the waves are speckled with surfers and surf-boards. Some surfers are riding the waves with flowing determination. Others are flying high into the air and plunging deep into the foam. The image provides a metaphor for management in turbulent times. For like surfers, managers and their organisations have to ride on a sea of change that can twist and turn with all the power of the ocean.’ (Gareth Morgan, 1988)

What are you doing right now? Are you surfing, swimming or drowning? Are you surrounded by beautiful fish or man-eating sharks? Today, in public services, it is all too easy to feel like the surf is spinning you around, dragging you under and then crashing you against the rocks. But, back in 1988, Gareth Morgan gave us some great insights into the management competencies that would be required moving forward, to help us surf like a professional.

Morgan reminds us that, ‘many organisations and their managers drive toward the future while looking through the rear-view mirror. They manage in relation to events that have already occurred, rather than anticipate and confront the challenges of the future.’ He is clear in highlighting that organisations are becoming flatter and more decentralised. Self-organisation is occurring where autonomy is given to remote staff groups who are controlled from a distance.

With these changes comes the undeniable need to think and work differently. Possessing specific skills and abilities and combining technical, human and conceptual skills to create efficiency is no longer enough. To date, many organisations have tended to be successful because of very tight centralised control. Direct control can often feel like an attractive and comfortable way to manage. It suits those at the top who often can’t let go because their concept of being organised is linked to controlling and monitoring their constituent teams/ services. There is also some fear that the people at the bottom will not be driven to the same excellence in decision making as those at the top. But what can replace this direct control and how do people need to work to make it happen?

Moving forward, control will look more like management of relationships across a network, rather than management of discreet activities. ‘A network must be managed as a system of interdependent stakeholders, with collective identity and management philosophies that recognise the importance of mutual dependence and collaboration and a collective sense of accountability and control.’ ‘Collective identity’ itself will be a particular challenge, in my opinion. It is all too often that teams/ services/ organisations cling on to their identity for dear life and even after years of restructuring/ integrating/ changing, being dragged under the water over and over again, they still emerge flustered, gasping and adamantly refusing to let their old identity go.

Morgan tells us that, ‘Increasingly, the leadership process will become identified with an ability to mobilise the energies and commitments of people through the creation of shared values and shared understandings’. Development of operational skills will be only one part of the story. Developing attitudes, values and the mindset to allow teams to confront, understand and deal with forces inside and outside of the organisation will be the other side of the coin and the two must work in harmony together. Navigating the forthcoming waves with foresight and flexibility will be imperative to survival.

Management competencies will look and feel much different to those of today and will include:

  • Developing contextual competencies – building bridges and alliances, reframing problems to open up new possibilities, acting nationally and locally, developing a new approach to social responsibility;
  • Reading the environment – scanning and intelligence functions, forecasting, scenario planning and identifying major occurrences that could shape the future environment;
  • Proactive management – developing proactive mindsets, managing from the outside in (keeping in close contact with the evolving environment and enhancing capacity to rise to challenges and opportunities in an ongoing way) positioning and repositioning skills (the ability to manage tension between present and future so that you can position for the future whilst avoiding collapse in existing operations);
  • Promoting creativity, learning and innovation;
  • Skills of remote management (helicoptering, managing through an umbilical cord, promoting self-organisation, managing ambiguity and managing the balance between chaos and control);
  • Using I.T. to drive improvements;
  • Managing complexity (many things at once, transitions and multiple stakeholders)

The manager may no longer be able to function as a technical specialist who is also responsible for managing people, as is so often the case today. He or she will have to be become much more of an all-round generalist. Traditional supervisory roles are likely to disappear and the important competency may then lie in the ability to get employees enthused and fully absorbed with the new corporate philosophy, rather than to follow instructions in a mechanical way.

Innovation will be essential and with it comes the need to improve lateral interactions. Team managers will need to be able to:

  • Talk to and work with one another, embedding really successful interactions;
  • Develop a sense of common purpose;
  • Engage in effective conflict management and be able to read and handle hidden tensions;
  • Be a general resource to teams, a trouble shooter, a networker between self-organising teams, linking those teams to the wider organisation;
  • Take a more hands-off approach to management so that the initiative and control is passed to others;
  • Feel comfortable dealing with loosely structured situations and only intervene when necessary and in ways that empower;
  • Be aware of feedback systems that keep them informed without giving direct operational control.

In addition, organisations will need to adopt a risk taking ‘see if this works’ attitude, developing a supportive culture to experimentation. They will need to give parameters within which to operate, monitor on the basis of results and give teams the autonomy to operate quickly and flexibly to the changing environment. Planning can be bottom up, with management ensuring that plans fit with the organisation’s overarching vision. However, early warning systems should be built in to let managers know when intervention is required. Those mechanisms should seek to maintain the autonomy of the teams.

To deal with accountability, organisations and their managers should create systems of values, so employees can share and understand the mission and general parameters that guide action, rather than developing a set of rules as bureaucratic organisations do now. This, in itself, will require a mind-set shift from current day. Future managers will have to become as skilled in the art of empowerment as traditional managers are skilled in exercising direction and control.

Anticipating, communicating, sharing, inspiring, empowering, facilitating, networking, motivating are all words which are likely to become more and more common place in relation to management competencies.

As Morgan tells us,
‘You must have a remote type of management facility – the Europeans call it the helicopter principle – where you hover like a helicopter over the scene. If something goes wrong, you can come down and resolve it, but essentially you operate at a distance, and let the operation go.’

Which, I dare say, will be easier said than done for most organisations……

(Riding the waves of change, Gareth Morgan 1988)

A new challenge for systems practitioners

I read many posts about why systems thinking isn’t adopted more widely. I won’t get into that argument right now because I have a new concern on my radar. Working with public sector organisations, I am encouraged by the forward thinking of some emerging leaders and their positivity and desire to think differently. But, I am recurrently seeing a phrase that should fill me with delight and yet it is having the opposite effect. The phrase is this, ‘We are implementing a model of systems thinking and system leadership’. When I ask people who are implementing this model of systems thinking and system leadership what a system is…..well, unfortunately, they can rarely tell me. When I ask people what systems thinking is, the response is nearly always, ‘all organisations working together.’ Yes, this may be one element but it isn’t the totality of what systems thinking is. My worry, as a systems practitioner, is the extent of the challenge I now have in undoing the false beliefs about what systems thinking is. It was easier when people knew nothing. At least then I was starting from a blank sheet. I’ve always had some concerns in this area but lately it is escalating. It is escalating because the words ‘systems thinking’ are, in more recent months, being used more frequently and sometimes quite inappropriately and no-one is there to challenge that when it happens.

My shout out to all the systems practitioners out there, in particular those who have come through the Open University Systems Thinking in Practice qualifications and who are working either as consultants or covertly in organisations (especially those working in public services) ………please show yourselves. Now is not our time to stay quiet. Now is our time to expose the thinking, methods, models etc that we use and share them widely.

Systems thinking can be a massive asset to pubic services as they try to navigate the monumental complexity and change they are currently having to navigate. Tell people about boundaries and environments, tell them about emergence, self-organisation and feedback, tell them about the methods and models we have access to and can help them to learn, tell them about mental models and patterns of behaviour, tell them about structural coupling, tell them about dynamics, stocks and flows, tell them about leverage points, tell them about archetypes, tell them about systems laws and variety. Tell them about Barry Oshry’s tops, middles, bottoms and customers. Tell them about metaphors and clean language. Tell them about complex adaptive systems. Tell them about purpose and identity. Now is not the time to keep quiet.

In the past, I have worked very covertly in organisations, keeping systems thinking fairly quiet and just ‘getting on with it’ so I can totally understand why people do this. But, times have changed. At the moment, we have a huge opportunity to influence new thinking. Let’s do it! Let’s get a truer understanding of what systems thinking is ‘out there’ and make it accessible to all. We learnt it, so others can learn it too.

For those of you reading this who are in public services and don’t know what systems thinking is and are confused about systems leadership – look to systems practitioners to help you. There are many of us out there. Some working inside organisations as members of staff, some, like me, working as consultants. We are dedicated to helping others learn the systems thinking mindset and we would be only too happy to help.

 

Applying systems thinking to commissioning: who will be the future system leaders?

I often wonder just who the leaders in the commissioning landscape will be moving forwards. Times are changing rapidly, organisational boundaries are blurring and merging and new integrated teams promise to be one of the enablers of different ways of working.

To survive in this new landscape will take a crucial shift in our awareness of the situations in which we operate and the ways in which we think. Fragmented, linear thinking is no longer appropriate for dealing with the wealth of complexity in today’s world. It is going to be ever more important to grow the state of mind from which one operates in order to survive. We should be mindful that what we are looking at is determined by how we are looking and a process of stepping outside of our normal ways of thinking may be required. (Jan de Vische, 2014)

Those of us who engage with systems thinking are very aware that, ‘A systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.’ (Churchman, 1968) and some core concepts of systems thinking are ‘gaining a bigger picture (going up a level of abstraction) and appreciating other people’s perspectives.’ (Chapman, 2004) These are easy things to say, I guess, but much harder to put in practice if you are not used to it and yet I feel they will be important skills for the leaders of the new commissioning landscape as they lead within a wider system and not just the constraints of one organisation.

To see the wider system people must first move beyond the strongly bonded relationship they have with their current organisation, which will inevitably be hierarchical. Fritjof Capra in his book, The Systems View of Life, reminds us that people see their position in a hierarchy as part of their identity. Therefore, to me it is easy to imagine why people may not want to see other perspectives as they are happy to see the world as they currently do and feel happy with their current identity within the existent hierarchy.  Because of this, the demise of organisational boundaries and traditional hierarchies may generate some existential fears and I wonder to what degree this will hinder people’s ability to organically adapt to their new circumstances.

On a positive note though, it may act as a catalyst for new, emergent thinking. I wonder if those caught in this huge and prolonged change realise that there is a different kind of power they can harness instead of the traditional power gained through hierarchical positioning? It is the power to empower others. Capra tells us that the network is the ideal structure for exerting this kind of power, which, in my mind, fits perfectly with the newly emerging commissioning landscape. I feel that future system leaders will be those who can effectively facilitate the new connectedness, rather than resist it. They will be the ones who can develop rich connections, recognise new centres of power, grow alliances, partnerships and new relationships, learn their way forward with others and not be afraid of failure. They will be the ones who support new mechanisms of learning, grow shared values as oppose to being chained to one organisational culture and they will nurture a true sense of community.

The systems leaders will be those who can effectively work with the flux, rather than hide from it and they will be committed to the success of the whole, rather than one part of it. They will be able to focus on similarities rather than differences and will have a committed focus on deeper learning. Their tolerance for uncertainty will be enhanced, they will embrace new freedoms and they will accept the need for a longer-term focus.

I believe the new way forward has the potential to open up a plethora of freedoms and choices, which I believe will be hugely beneficial, because as von Foerster reminds us, ‘the more freedom one has, the more choices one has, and the better chance that people will take responsibility for their own actions. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand.’ (Ison, 2010)